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The 21st Century Charter Schools Initiative

The 21st Century Charter Schools Initiative

Chapter 1:

Chapter 1: The Need for Innovation For years, charter schools have brought new ideas to the work of educating our sons and daughters… [They] serve as incubators of innovation in neighborhoods across our country. President Barack Obama (2012) What I like most about our best charters is that they think differently. Secretary Arne Duncan (2009) In a 2009 speech, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a challenge to turn around America’s chronically low-performing schools. There are approximately 5,000 such schools, or about 5 percent of all public elementary and secondary education in the country. According to Duncan, “About half are in big cities, maybe a third are in rural areas, and the rest are in suburbs and medium-sized towns. This is a national problem—urban, rural, and suburban.” The data on our entire education system reinforce and expand on his rhetoric. American public schools are in dire straits, with the nation performing poorly relative to other countries and failing to serve many of its most underprivileged and vulnerable students. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress—a set of assessments administered every two years to a nationally representative group of fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders—reveal that 33 percent of eighth graders are proficient in reading and 34 percent are proficient in math; data for fourth and twelfth graders are similar. According to a Center for Education Policy report, 48 percent of American public schools did not make adequate yearly progress for the 2010–11 school year (Usher 2011). In 2010, The Education Trust reported that about one in five high school graduates does not score high enough on the United States Army’s Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to meet the minimum standard necessary to enlist in the Army (Theokas 2010). Americans spend an average of $10,768 per pupil per year on primary and secondary education, more than any other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country except Switzerland, yet among those same countries, American fifteen-year-olds rank twenty-fifth in math achievement, seventeenth in science, and twelfth in reading (Aud et al. 2011; Fleischman 2010). Our stagnant education system has proven especially detrimental to poor and minority students. Among the eighteen large urban districts that participated in the Trial Urban District Assessment of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, there is not one in which even 25 percent of black students are proficient in either reading or math (Fryer 2012). And yet it was not always so. The United States was once a world leader in education. In 1962, the UNESCO Institute for Education found that American thirteen-year-olds showed the highest achievement in science (Foshay et al. 1962). In 1970, the United States had 30 percent of the world’s college graduates, and as recently as 1995, the United States was tied for first in college and university graduation rates (McKinsey 2009). These facts have led to a growing demand for change in the way we approach education, but no consensus on the way forward. Some argue that teachers and school administrators are dealing with issues that originate outside the classroom, citing research that shows racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps are present before children enter school (Fryer and Levitt 2004, 2006) and that one-third to one-half of the gap can be explained by family-environment indicators (Fryer and Levitt 2004; Phillips et al. 1998). In this scenario, combating poverty and having more-constructive out-of-school time will increase the efficacy of traditional school practices. Indeed, Coleman and colleagues (1966), in their famous report on equality of educational opportunity, argue that schools alone cannot treat the problem of chronic underachievement in schools. Others argue for a more school-centered approach, referring to anecdotes of excellence in particular schools or examples of other countries where low-income children in superior schools outperform average-income Americans (Chenoweth 2007). In this scenario, the policy priority is to understand the set of practices driving these success stories so we can use them to turn around failing schools. Finally, some believe that any top-down approach is futile, arguing that increasing market forces through choice, vouchers, parental triggers, and reduced barriers to entry and exit will allow the cream to rise to the top and force underperforming schools out of the education market. The Hamilton Project • Brookings 5

Clearly, there is a desperate need for innovation in education. Every day, the youth of America arrive at buildings that sport long hallways lined with identical square rooms. These students move from room to room every hour accompanied by peers of similar ability levels. They sit and listen as teachers lecture from the front of the room. This has been the American public school experience for more than a hundred years. While other industries were inventing and refining penicillin, the polio vaccine, commercial air travel, cell phones, laptop computers, and iPads, public schools repainted their hallways, repaired their egg-carton buildings, and hired more teachers to deliver the same lecture-driven instruction. Introduced a scant twenty-one years ago, charter schools were meant to counteract this complacency; they have since become one of the most important innovations in American public education in the past half century. Even in these divisive political times, leaders from both sides of the aisle have expressed support for expanding charter access and raising charter school caps. 1 Although they are required to have open admissions policies, charter schools are exempt from most other statutory requirements of traditional public schools, including mandates around spending, human capital management, parental involvement in the educational process, curriculum and instructional practices, and even governance and management structures. 2 In exchange for these freedoms, the public can hold charters accountable for student outcomes in ways that we cannot hold traditional public schools. While charter schools have tremendous promise to level the educational playing field in the United States, two major barriers have heretofore prevented these schools from reaching their full potential. First, as a whole, charter schools have yielded inconsistent results. Some have made impressive strides in closing the achievement gap between low-income and higher-income students, but others have not had any significant effects. Second, at the current rate of growth, it will take about a hundred years for charter schools to expand to serve all children, and so if they are to be a true engine for reform, we must expand charter schools’ successes to the traditional public schools that serve most American students. On this first front, to better understand what features of charter schools are most effective in raising scholastic achievement, we examined evidence from New York City charter schools, where we identified five educational practices that are proving most successful: (1) focusing on human capital, (2) using student data to drive instruction, (3) providing high-dosage tutoring, (4) extending time on task, and (5) establishing a culture of high expectations. While the second problem has received much less attention, our experiments in Houston and Denver—where we implement these charter-school practices in traditional public schools— point to a way forward. Although these experiments are ongoing, preliminary results suggest that those reforms that were shown to boost achievement in charter schools can be successfully implemented in traditional public schools as well. In all sections of this paper, we draw on scholarly work from Dobbie and Fryer (2011b) and Fryer (2012), which provides the main analysis and much further detail. Further research is needed to fully flesh out how these charter-school interventions translate to public schools, but these results illuminate a promising path forward for K–12 education reform. 6 Learning from the Successes and Failures of Charter Schools

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